Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Plight of NGOs in Egypt

BY William Fisher

Non-governmental organizations in Egypt are being strangled by a law severely restricting their activities and by the “extra-legal role” of the country’s Security Services, a new report from Human Rights Watch charges.

“Civil society groups in Egypt face severe restrictions under the law governing nongovernmental organizations. In addition, the country’s security services
scrutinize and harass civil society activists even though the law does not
accord them any such powers”, an HRW spokesman said.

The 45-page report, “Margins of Repression: State Limits on Nongovernmental
Organization Activism,” concludes that “the most serious barrier to meaningful freedom of association in Egypt is the extra-legal role of the security services”.

The report documents numerous cases where the security services rejected NGO registrations, decided who could serve on NGO boards of directors, harassed NGO activists, and interfered with donations reaching the groups.

It says that while the current law, which went into effect in 2003, is an improvement over the previous law, “its provisions — and the broad and arbitrary way it is applied — violate Egypt’s international legal obligations to uphold freedom of association. The law prohibits political and union-related activity, and allows the authorities to dissolve organizations by administrative order. It continues a host of intrusive administrative practices that stunt organizing by civil society groups, and provide ample means for state interference in their affairs.”

“There is a difference between ensuring that civil society groups are accountable to the public and enhancing the state’s power to police and stifle the work of these groups,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt’s laws and practices fall squarely in the latter category.”

Human Rights Watch called on the government to amend Law 84/2002 to make NGO registration voluntary and abolish penalties for participating in unregistered
NGOs. The authorities should also remove all restrictions on peaceful activities
that amount to the exercise of freedom of expression, freedom of association,
and freedom to participate in public life.

It said the government should:

Amend the law to ensure that all non-profit groups formed for any legal purpose
are allowed to acquire legal personality by making registration and membership of
NGOs entirely voluntary, abolishing penalties for participation in unregistered NGOs; and removing restrictions on the ability to affiliate with other NGOs, whether domestic or foreign.

Remove all restrictions on peaceful activities that amount to the exercise of internationally-recognized human rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association, and freedom to participate in public life.

Ensure that any involuntary dissolution of an NGO takes place only by judicial order, and only as a result of the most egregious violations by removing the administrative authority’s power to dissolve an NGO.

Permit receipt of donations or transfers from foreign donors, as long as all foreign exchange and customs laws are satisfied.

Allow NGOs to work in the thematic and geographical areas of their choosing.

Abolish the requirement that NGOs seek permission from the Ministry of Insurance and Social Affairs (MISA) for working in more than one field of activity or governorate.

Create a reporting system that is less complex, intrusive and burdensome, and abolish provisions that inappropriately prescribe internal governance mechanisms.

“Government regulations should help citizens to form groups, raise money, and
carry out needed work,” Stork said. “If people cannot form civil society
organizations and run them without heavy state interference, the chances of
developing a functioning democracy will shrink.”

The Egyptian government has no legitimate interest in choosing who can sit on
a board of directors, approving invitations to conferences, or reviewing minutes
of meetings and deciding how often executive committees can meet, Human Rights Watch said.

In an earlier report, HRW charges that the Egyptian Government is using national security to stifle dissent.

It says the Egyptian government has detained hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members solely for exercising their rights to freedom of speech, association and assembly. “The Egyptian government should not use public security as a pretext to punish people for peacefully trying to exercise their basic rights,” Stork said.

The Muslim Brotherhood, a banned but tolerated group, staged large demonstrations in Egyptian cities in early May calling for political reform. At least 800 members were arrested, and more than 300 are still in custody, most without charge. In a letter sent to President Hosni Mubarak, Human Rights Watch called on the government to release the detainees without delay.

Mahmoud `Izzat, secretary-general of the organization, and Dr. `Issam al-Irian, a prominent activist, are among scores who are being investigated on charges of belonging to an illegal organization, possession of publications and spreading propaganda of a nature to disturb public security, and promoting the use of force to breach the Constitution. Lawyers for the men say the last charge, based on allegations that they urged demonstrators to attack the police, are groundless but allow the prosecutor to refer the cases to a military court under the country’s counterterrorism laws.

“The Egyptian government should not use public security as a pretext to punish people for peacefully trying to exercise their basic rights,” Stork said, adding, “After six weeks of investigations, the government has not shown that a crime has been committed.”

HRW said that, criminal law should not be used as a pretext to detain persons exercising their peaceful rights to expression, association and assembly”.

“President Mubarak should use this opportunity to end the practice of invoking national security to stifle peaceful dissent,” Stork said.

The new report comes at a time when Mubarak has taken limited steps to open the political process by amending the constitution to allow multi-party elections for president for the first time. However, many critics say the new election law is a sham that makes it virtually impossible for political parties to win approval for their candidates.

Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 24 years, being “reelected” five times in one-person
referenda. He has not publicly declared his candidacy for a sixth term, but is widely expected to run.


By William Fisher

The American Civil Liberties Union receives thousands of pages of FBI reports about prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Documents from the Environmental Protection Agency reveal that months after the collapse of the World Trade Center, Ground Zero is contaminated with asbestos.

A newspaper in Ohio discloses the risks Peace Corps volunteers, especially women, face abroad from violence, accidents, disease and suicide.

An airliner crashes in the Florida Everglades, killing 110 people. A newspaper obtains documents showing what the government knew about safety problems at the airline.

What these revelations – and thousands of others -- have in common is that each was based on facts contained in government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which marks its 39th birthday this July 4th.

Such laws are unknown in the Middle East, where much of the media is owned or controlled by the state, and where public sector transparency is still very much the exception.

Sweden was the first country to have a Freedom of Information law, but similar laws are now in effect in virtually all advanced democracies.

But, in the United States, this is a law that almost didn’t happen.

During World War II, the U.S. government released little information to the press and public. After the war, the government continued many of its information restriction practices. Republican President Eisenhower presided over a period of unprecedented government secrecy, leading to a battle between the journalists and the Defense Department.

Congress established a committee to investigate. Its investigations found evidence of “blatant and arbitrary government secrecy”.

Congressional support for greater transparency in government gradually gained momentum and, by the mid-1950s, had turned freedom of information into an issue that was included in the 1956 Democratic Party platform.

Although the “paper curtain” had been revealed, Congress asked for little more than greater voluntary disclosure from federal agencies in its first actions to ensure freedom of information.

But the press argued for immediate legislation requiring the government to be more systematic and open on the issue of access to information. As a result, Congress amended older laws used by the government to justify withholding information, but failed to create a new law to guarantee a systematic release of information.

But that didn’t happen until 1966, when the legislature passed the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. On July 4th, President Johnson, despite his own objections, signed the bill into law.

Johnson signed the act on his Texas ranch, far from the nation’s capital, press conferences and television cameras. No one from the small band of legislators, lawyers and journalists who fought so hard for its enactment was on hand. The act had only one day to go before dying of presidential neglect in the form of a pocket veto.

This was hardly an auspicious beginning for a law that eventually spawned parallel "sunshine laws" in all 50 American states.

Yet the original 1966 law was little more than a symbolic bow in the direction
of government transparency. It did not contain a timeline for compliance with requests. It did not stipulate penalties for violation. No enforcement agency
oversaw agency transgressions. And the law failed to set limits on requestor fees.

These shortcomings were addressed in the amendments of 1974 and 1976, which were motivated by Ralph Nader’s activism and public objections to government secrecy in light of the Watergate scandal.

Today, virtually everyone sees FOIA as an essential check on unlimited government power.

Dr. Jack Behrman, former professor at the University of North Carolina Business School and Assistant Secretary of Commerce during the Kennedy Administration, sums up its value. He told IPS, “The FOIA is a necessary door-opener for the public to view events, policies, and negotiations of government as soon as practicable -- if not sooner. The watchdogs always need watchdogs, and the best final arbiter of relevance is the public itself.”

Efforts to strengthen FOIA are continuing, today by an unlikely partnership of one of the U.S. Senate’s most liberal members and one of its most conservative.

The odd couple is Senator John Cornyn, a conservative Republican from Texas and Senator Patrick Leahy, a liberal Democrat from Maine. Amid growing complaints about delays and difficulties in obtaining information from federal agencies, the pair has put together two bills.

One would create a commission to identify ways to reduce delays in processing FOIA requests. A second would establish a way for people to track their Freedom of Information Act requests on the Internet and would establish an ombudsman to mediate disputes between agencies and requesters.

Mark Dow, author of "American Gulag", a book describing the U.S. immigration prison system, has used FOIA widely and supports the ombudsman idea. He says, " Having an ombudsman to resolve disputes sounds like a very good idea, since otherwise the system is inherently biased." His own experience with the law is mixed: “Some of my FOIA requests to DOJ and INS have yielded important information; others have been rejected without explanation.” On balance, however, he believes “the FOIA system is an essential tool for monitoring our government employees”.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report notes that during the Bush Administration there has been a dramatic increase in Freedom of Information Act requests -- a 71 percent jump from 2002 to 2004; a 68 percent rise in requests processed during that period; and a 14 percent rise in the backlog. The report, examining requests processed in 2004, says 92 percent resulted in "responsive records" being provided in full. However, those seeking information often have to sue the government to get it.

Norman Solomon, Executive Director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and author of the new book, "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death", is not surprised. He says, “Secrecy is always part of the arsenal for domestic war propaganda. Lies for war come in many forms -- and no form is more crucial than the blockading of information. It's no coincidence that the current White House efforts to severely limit the utility of FOIA requests in the most "sensitive" cases is underway…Those who are eager to pursue war policies that can't stand the light of day are eager to keep those policies in dark shadows.”


By William Fisher

As prodigiously funded groups on the religious Right prepare to square off against the equally well-endowed but largely sectarian Left in a take-no-prisoners battle over President George W. Bush’s not-yet-nominated replacement for retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, there are signs that a new progressive religious movement may be emerging.

Determined to reclaim the issue of faith from the Christian right, the new Christian Alliance for Progress (CAP) describes itself as a grass-roots organization with plans for a national membership. CAP’s core principles include commitments to economic justice, environmental stewardship, equality for homosexuals, effective prevention -- but not criminalization -- of abortion, peaceful solutions to international disputes, and universal health care for all Americans.

"For years, we've been hearing the name of Christianity be used to speak about hatred, division, war and greed," said Patrick Mrotek, the health management consultant who founded the group. He added, “"We believe we can no longer stand by and watch the language of our faith used in that manner, and we think it is time to reclaim our faith."

Supported by private donations, the group began organizing four months ago and has attracted 3,000 to 4,000 members so far, according to Kathleen LeRoy, vice president of operations. She also said "dozens of people" have agreed to head chapters of the Christian Alliance for Progress across the country.

According to its statement of purpose, "The Christian Alliance for Progress, founded firmly on the teachings of the Gospel, will stand for pursuing economic justice; responsible environmental stewardship; equality for gays and lesbians; honoring the sanctity of childbearing decisions through effective prevention, not criminalization of abortion; seeking peace, not war; and achieving health care for all Americans."

Its liberal stance on abortion mirrors the softer approach recently taken by some Democrats, such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), that abortion, while not a good thing, is something that must be available but rare.

It also opens the possibility for progressive interfaith coalitions. Prof. Omid Safi, one of the co-founders of the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU), told IPS, “Their stances certainly mirror many of PMU’s, and I think groups like this should be working hand in hand.”

Safi is co-chair of the Study of Islam section at the American Academy of Religion, and a professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University. PMU was launched in 2004.

Last week, the Alliance delivered what it calls "The Jacksonville Declaration" – an open letter to leaders of the religious right. The declaration was read in front of the First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. The pastor of that church, Jerry Vines, made headlines in 2002 when he described the Prophet Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile."

In the declaration, the group quotes a number of statements that members consider at odds with the spirit of tolerance and compassion in the Bible. For example, they cite a letter religious leader Bob Jones sent to President Bush after last year's election in which he said, "You owe liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ."

The declaration also quotes a statement made by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in March in which he said, "I hope the Supreme Court will finally read the Constitution and see there's no such thing, or no mention of separation of church and state in the Constitution."

Says the Declaration: “We must tell you now that you do not speak for us, or for our politics. We say ‘No’ to the ways you are using the name and language of Christianity to advance what we see as extremist political goals. We do not support your agenda to erode the separation of church and state, to blur the vital distinction between your interpretation of Christianity and our shared democratic institutions. Moreover, we do not accept what seems to be your understanding of Christian values. We reject a Christianity co-opted by any government and used as a tool to ostracize, to subjugate, or to condone bigotry, greed and injustice.”

The Alliance was founded by Jacksonville, Florida, businessman Patrick Mrotek. The Reverend Timothy F. Simpson, a Presbyterian minister, is the group’s director of religious affairs

Rev. Simpson says “the Christian right, in the persons of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson, has come to stand for bigotry, intolerance, and division”, and promises that his organization “will try to repair the damage done by the right’s insistence that the United States is a ‘Christian nation’ that ought to be governed according to their narrow interpretation of Scripture.”

“I understand that the truth can be spoken by Muslims, and the truth can be spoken by Jews. The truth can be spoken by atheists,” said Simpson, adding, “An atheist who stands for the interests of the neighbor, an atheist who stands for the interests of poor people at the margins, for the oppressed, is worth more than a hundred Christians who have made their bed with the fat cats, because that atheist is actually articulating the ends of the kingdom of God.”

CAP launched its Web site last month, and, with no advertising, has already attracted thousands of signatories to its “Jacksonville Declaration”. The group has also recruited community organizers in 20 cities across the country.

The new organization will also make common cause with other progressive Christian groups. Perhaps the best known of these is Soujourners, headed by Rev. Jim Wallis who, after working as an anti-poverty crusader and magazine editor for many years, made headlines in the 2004 presidential campaign by challenging the religious conservative monopoly. Wallis is the author of the best-selling book, "God's Politics".

Simpson said the group would attempt to emulate the religious right in at least one respect: organization. He said the CAP intends to “mobilize a field force of people who will respond to issues and make their voice heard from the perspective of the Christian left.”

But Simpson says he can call for more religion to influence politics while still advocating a clear separation between church and state.


By William Fisher

Though it happened just over 20 years ago, today’s media has all but forgotten that Afghanistan’s Taliban was largely the creation of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and a hard-drinking, party-loving Texas congressman who helped funnel billions of dollars in arms to “freedom fighters” like Osama Bin Laden and Mulla Mohammad Omar.

The congressman was Charles Wilson, a colorful and powerful Democrat from the East Texas Bible Belt. During the 1980s, Wilson was a member of a congressional appropriations subcommittee. From that position of power he funneled billions of dollars in secret funding to the C.I.A., which used the money to purchase weapons to help the Mujahedeen drive the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.

In those days, the Mujahedeen were viewed by the U.S. as “freedom fighters”, and were so-named by President Ronald Reagan, who praised them for “defending principles of independence and freedom that form the basis of global security and stability.”

In that Cold War environment, chasing the Russians out of the country trumped all other considerations. Among the weapons funded by Congress were hundreds of Stinger missile systems that Mujahedeen forces used to counter the Russians' lethal Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships. And there were also tens of thousands of automatic weapons, antitank guns, satellite intelligence maps. According to Crile, Wilson brought his own belly dancer from Texas to Cairo to entertain the Egyptian defense minister, who was secretly supplying the Mujahedeen with millions of rounds of ammunition for the AK-47's the C.I.A. was smuggling into Afghanistan.

From a few million dollars in the early 1980's, support for the resistance grew to about $750 million a year by the end of the decade. Decisions were made in secret by Wilson and other lawmakers on the appropriations committee. To help make his case, Wilson exploited one of the decade's scandals, the Iran-contra affair, arguing that Democrats who were voting to cut off funding for the contras in Nicaragua could demonstrate their willingness to stand up to the Soviet empire by approving more money for the Afghan fighters.

Many Muslims from other countries volunteered to assist various Mujahedeen
groups in Afghanistan, and gained significant experience in guerrilla warfare.
Some of these veterans have been significant factors in more recent conflicts in and around the Muslim world.

The effort was successful. On Feb. 15, 1989, Gen. Boris Gromov, commander of the Soviets' 40th Army, walked across Friendship Bridge as the last Russian to leave Afghanistan. The C.I.A. cable from the Islamabad station to the agency’s headquarters said, ''We won.'' Wilson's own note said simply, ''We did it.''

Pakistan's then president, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, who had allowed the weapons to move through his country on C.I.A.-purchased mules, credited Wilson with the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan. ''Charlie did it, '' he said

Thus, the largest covert operation in the C.I.A. history ended with Russia’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But, in a new book – “Charlie Wilson’s War” by George Crile -- the American-financed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan also helped create the political vacuum that was filled by the Taliban and Islamic extremists, who turned their deadly terrorism against the United States on September 11, 2001.

After the Soviet withdrawal, the C.I.A. tried to buy back the weapons they had supplied, but were largely unsuccessful.

Until Wilson’s retirement from the House in 1996, he enjoyed a reputation as a relentless womanizer, perpetual partier, borderline drunk, and general rouĂ©.

But Wilson's questionable reputation proved to be a brilliant cover for his passionate anti-Communism. He was also an ambitious politician, perfectly willing to vote for military contracts in his colleagues' districts in return for votes to support the Mujahedeen.

When the Soviet Union pulled its troops out, however, the Mujahedeen did not establish a united government; its members broke into two loosely-aligned opposing factions, the Northern Alliance and a radical splinter group known as the Taliban. In the ensuing civil war for control of the country, the Mujahedeen was ousted from power by the Taliban in 1996.

The Mujahedeen regrouped as the Northern Alliance and in 2001 with U.S. and international military aid, ousted the Taliban from power and formed a new government.

A wealthy Saudi named Osama bin Laden was a prominent Mujahedeen organizer and financier; his Maktab al-Khadamat (MAK) (Office of Services) funneled money, arms, and Muslim fighters from around the world into Afghanistan, with the assistance and support of the American, Pakistani, and Saudi governments. Bin Laden broke away from the MAK in 1988, and the rest, as they say, is history.

In the U.S. invasion of the country following 9/11, the brutal Taliban theocracy was effectively defeated – or at least dispersed. But its remnants nevertheless continue to battle the U.S. and its Coalition partners, and spell trouble for the fragile government of American-backed President Hamid Karzai, which is struggling to deal with the fragmented, warlord-based nature of Afghan society and the devastation of years of war and deprivation.

In the 1980s, opposition to the Soviet Union and communism was virtually universal among Americans. But the Wilson story is a perfect illustration of good intentions resulting in bad consequences. Wilson's War succeeded in arming the very people responsible for the terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, and who ended up shooting at U.S. and Coalition troops.

Professor Abdullahi An-Na'im of Emory University Law School told IPS, “Good intentions are not good enough, and we should always be humble and accept the possibility of being wrong. The lesson of the law of 'unintended consequences' of our previous policies is to realize in our current policies that ends never justify the means. Pragmatic reasons for any policy must always be consistent with moral rationale. If bad means appear to achieved good ends in the short term, then it is simply that we have failed to appreciate the real costs which in fact outweigh the presumed benefits."

I Wrote Bush's War Words -- in 1965

By Daniel Ellsberg

Daniel Ellsberg worked in the State and Defense departments under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. He released the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971.

President Bush's explanation Tuesday night for staying the course in Iraq evoked in me a sense of familiarity, but not nostalgia. I had heard virtually all of his themes before, almost word for word, in speeches delivered by three presidents I worked for: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon. Not with pride, I recognized that I had proposed some of those very words myself.

Drafting a speech on the Vietnam War for Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara in July 1965, I had the same task as Bush's speechwriters in June 2005: how to rationalize and motivate continued public support for a hopelessly stalemated, unnecessary war our president had lied us into.

Looking back on my draft, I find I used the word "terrorist" about our adversaries to the same effect Bush did.

Like Bush's advisors, I felt the need for a global threat to explain the scale of effort we faced. For that role, I felt China was better suited as our "real" adversary than North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, just as Bush prefers to focus on Al Qaeda rather than Iraqi nationalists. "They are trying to shake our will in Iraq — just as they [sic] tried to shake our will on Sept. 11, 2001," he said.

My draft was approved by McNamara, national security advisor McGeorge Bundy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, but it was not delivered because it was a clarion call for mobilizing the Reserves to support an open-ended escalation of troops, as Johnson's military commanders had urged.

LBJ preferred instead to lie at a news conference about the number of troops they had requested for immediate deployment (twice the level he announced), and to conceal the total number they believed necessary for success, which was at least 500,000. (I take with a grain of salt Bush's claim that "our commanders tell me they have the number of troops they need to do their job.")

A note particularly reminiscent in Bush's speech was his reference to "a time of testing." "We have more work to do, and there will be tough moments that test America's resolve," he said.

This theme recalled a passage in my 1965 draft that, for reasons that will be evident, I have never chosen to reproduce before. I ended by painting a picture of communist China as "an opponent that views international politics as a whole as a vast guerrilla struggle … intimidating, ambushing, demoralizing and weakening those who would uphold an alternative world order."

"We are being tested," I wrote. "Have we the guts, the grit, the determination to stick with a frustrating, bloody, difficult course as long as it takes to see it through….? The Asian communists are sure that we have not." Tuesday, Bush said: Our adversaries "believe that free societies are essentially corrupt and decadent, and with a few hard blows they can force us to retreat."

His speechwriters, like me, then faced this question from the other side. To meet the enemy's test of resolve, how long must the American public support troops as they kill and die in a foreign land? Their answer came in the same workmanlike evasions that served Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon: "as long as we are needed (and not a day longer) … until the fight is won."

I can scarcely bear to reread my own proposed response in 1965 to that question, which drew on a famous riposte by the late U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban missile crisis:

"There is only one answer for us to give. It was made … by an American statesman … in the midst of another crisis that tested our resolution. Till hell freezes over."

It doesn't feel any better to hear similar words from another president 40 years on, nor will they read any better to his speechwriters years from now. But the human pain they foretell will not be mainly theirs.